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Elder Athletes

elder athletes

It’s a myth that athletes necessarily slow down as they grow older, reports Gina Kolata in The New York Times (1/31/08). In fact, some runners actually “are faster at 60 than at 50.” It’s not exactly that the trajectory isn’t downward, though. What Dr. Vonda Wright of the University of Pittsburgh has found is it’s possible “to stave off more deterioration than you thought.” Not only that but you can start the staving pretty late in the game — “one man took up running at 62 and ran his first marathon, a year later, in 3 hours and 25 minutes.”

The key to that kind of success, says Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, 41, is to “train hard and train often.” The reason, he says, is that you need to increase your oxygen consumption, which is essential to performance. “You have to make training as intense as you can,” he advises. Dr. Steven Hawkins, a physiologist, agrees: “High performance is really determined more by intensity than volume. Sometimes, when you’re older, something has to give. You can have both so you cut back on the volume. You need to rest more days.” The challenge is, your heart rate and lung capacity both decline with age.

But the good news is, “muscle mass and lactic threshold can be maintained.” However, the other limiting factor is purely one of motivation. Athletes who have been going at it for 50 years sometimes just don’t feel like exercising anymore. This can be especially true if they see their performance declining, even though they are working as hard or harder as ever — but for the truly dedicated that really shouldn’t happen until around age 75, when times fall, “on average, by 7 percent.” Dr. Barry Erbsen, 67, a dentist, found a simple solution for that — he switched from running to mountain biking. “I’m not getting too much slower,” he reports. ~ Tim Manners, editor